Cleaning the ears is a standard component of many people’s hygiene routine, but are you doing it right? It might seem like it’s no big deal, but cleaning out your ears the wrong way can have significant consequences for your health. This guide will tell you the proper way to keep your ears healthy and clean.
How Should You Clean Your Ears?
Before we tell you how to clean your ears, we should first clear up a misconception about cerumen, commonly known as earwax. While many people think of earwax as unclean, it’s a perfectly natural substance that protects your ear canal from infection, dryness and dirt.
That said, many people are prone to earwax buildup because of genetics or environmental factors. If it’s not managed, they might get a cerumen impaction, leading to muffled hearing. If you have this problem, you should clean your ears out periodically to keep the earwax buildup under control.
Do It Yourself Ear Cleaning
If you are one of those people who experience frequent earwax blockages, there are several ways to safely clean your ears and remove earwax at home. Let’s look at a few.
Distilled Water or Saline
To do this, you’ll need a bulb syringe, which can be found at any drug store.
Follow these steps:
- Fill up your bathroom sink with warm water. Make sure it’s not too hot to avoid damaging the sensitive skin of your ear canal. It should be about the same as your body temperature
- Draw some water from the sink using the syringe.
- Tilt your head over the sink and place the tip of the syringe near the opening of your ear canal.
- Spray the entire contents of the syringe into your ear and let it drain into the sink.
- Repeat three or four times or as needed
- Clean any earwax that has accumulated around the outer ear with a damp washcloth
Cerumenolytics Ear Drops
For stubborn wax or a cerumen impaction, doctors sometimes recommend a type of specialized medicated ear drops to break up earwax called a cerumenolytic. You can find most of them over the counter.
Some common cerumenolytics include:
- Sodium bicarbonate
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Carbamide peroxide
You put a few drops into your ear and then tilt your head in the opposite direction for several minutes to let the medication work its way down into your ear canal.
Professional Earwax Removal
If your blockage persists after trying DIY solutions, you need to see your primary care provider. They have specialized tools to deal with excessive earwax. For example, professional irrigation involves using sharp water jets to propel the earwax out.
Your doctor can use a suction device to pull earwax and other debris out of your ears if necessary. They might even go into your ear to scrape out the wax with the help of an otoscope.
The Wrong Way To Clean Your Ears
The techniques listed above are the safest, most effective ways to deal with excessive earwax. Other methods are risky for your ears.
Doctors recommend that you avoid the following:
While cotton swabs, or Q-tips, are a standard way many people clean their ears, doctors have warned against them for decades. Manufacturers even put a warning label on the box telling people not to use them in their ear canals or noses.
Cotton swabs have three major risks:
- A cotton swab can push excess earwax deep inside the ear canal, causing an earwax blockage and temporary hearing loss.
- If you push a cotton swab too far, it can easily puncture the eardrum.
- Cotton swabs can leave behind bits of debris in the ear canal that can cause irritation or become breeding grounds for infection.
Many alternative medicine practitioners recommend using ear candles to draw out earwax, claiming that this comes from the Hopi Native American tribe. However, the tribe has denied any connection to the practice.
This is called candling or coning, and the FDA warns against it.
The heat and debris from ear candles can damage the ear, causing hearing loss.
People often try to dig earwax out with an object. Common examples include:
- Bobby pins
Using a foreign object can cause cuts and scratches to your ear canal or puncture your eardrum.
Even though they’re perfectly safe, some people shy away from cerumenolytics, preferring all-natural home remedies like:
- Baby oil
- Mineral oil
- Olive oil
- Almond oil
However, many studies have shown oils are ineffective at breaking apart or softening earwax. Stick with what works.
More Helpful Tips
Now that you know how to clean your ears, here are some other things you should keep in mind:
Make Sure Your Eardrum is Intact
You shouldn’t clean your ears if you believe you have a ruptured eardrum. Common signs include:
- Ear pain
- Loss of balance
- Vertigo or dizziness
- Hearing loss
If you have a rupture, medication and other materials can cross over into the middle ear, damaging the structures there. You should contact your doctor before cleaning your ears if you suspect a rupture.
Don’t Clean Too Much
Cleaning your ears too much is a bad idea.
Earwax acts as a moisturizer that lubricates your ear’s delicate skin. It also has antibacterial properties.
Cleaning too often interferes with your ears’ defense mechanism, leaving them prone to ear infection, dryness, and irritation.
Your ears have a natural process for cleaning themselves. The jaw muscles attach close to the ear, so the wax is pushed out gradually when you chew or talk. Eventually, it will fall out on its own.
The only people who need to clean their ears often are people who are prone to earwax buildup.
This includes people who:
- Can’t talk or chew
- Wear hearing aids, earplugs or earbuds
- Have eczema, psoriasis and other skin conditions
If you’re prone to excess wax buildup, you should schedule a quarterly appointment to have your ears checked and cleaned.
The human body has its own mechanism for keeping the ears clean and healthy, so it’s best to leave them alone in most cases. However, if you have a problem with too much wax, you should break it up and flush it out periodically with a safe, doctor-approved method like medicated drops or warm water.
At the same time, avoid risky wax removal methods like ear candles and cotton swabs that can push earwax deeper into the ear.
Chalishazar U, Williams H. Back to basics: finding an optimal cerumenolytic (earwax solvent). Br J Nurs. 2007;16(13):806-808. doi:10.12968/bjon.2007.16.13.24247